ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian raw materials: metals

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Metals: sources, technologies, uses

    The material we make our tools and weapons from, the technologies that have to be learned to work it, and the trade links needed to acquire it have had a huge influence on human societies. We therefore tend to create chronologies based on how widespread the use of some such material was in a certain region. In the region of western Asia, Europe and Africa the powerhouse of innovation was the Middle East, with the knowledge of new technologies spreading south-west into North Africa and more slowly north-west into Europe.
PeriodApproximate time (Middle East)
Neolithic Period (Late Stone Age)      8000 - 4000 BCE       
Chalcolithic Period (Copper Age)4000 - 3150 BCEEgypt: Beads from meteoric iron
Early Bronze Age3150 - 2300 BCEEgypt: Oldest bronze (Old Kingdom, from 2700 onwards)
Middle Bronze Age2200 - 1550 BCEFirst uses of iron in Hatti and Mesopotamia
Late Bronze Age1550 - 1200 BCEEgypt: Oldest iron blade,probably Hittite. No local iron production
Early Iron Age1200 - 1000 BCE
Iron Age II1000 - 586 BCEEgypt: Beginning of iron production

    During the early stages of an age the use of the new metal was still infrequent, became widespread during the middle stage and common in the final period: The first iron weapons began to appear during the late New Kingdom, but the Egyptian Iron Age began in earnest only in the 7th or even the 6th century BCE when Greeks settlers at Naucratis introduced iron production.
    The prevalence of one material does not signify that longer known materials were abandoned. Flint continued to be used for the fashioning of simple, every-day tools, though not for making weapons, with ever growing infrequency until Roman times. The use of copper and bronze, even if employed ever more rarely for the fashioning of tools and weaponry, grew during the subsequent ages.
    In nature metals occur only rarely in their metallic state. There were the occasional finds of meteoric iron or alluvial gold in ancient Egypt, but most metal was won by mining ores and extracting the metal, expensive procedures given the fact that the tools used were barely harder than the rock they were supposed to crush, the fuel and its use inefficient and transportation cumbersome. Metal objects were expensive and once they ceased to be useful they were generally recycled. A large part of the objects that have survived to this day were part of tomb equipment deliberately buried.
    Gold was the flesh of the sun god, [12] by association it assured immortality. Ptah-Tatenen promised Ramses II happiness, wisdom, wealth and eternal power which was based on the strength of metals
I have set thee as everlasting king, ruler established forever. I have wrought thy limbs of electrum, thy bones of copper, thy organs of iron.
The blessing of Ptah, Ramses II
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 403


Copper     Until the New Kingdom most of the copper used in Egypt was seemingly mined in the eastern desert or Sinai [5].
Year 2 under the majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nematre, Son of Re, Amenemhet (III), living forever and ever. The treasurer of the god, master of the double cabinet, chief of the treasury, Khentkhetihotep-Khenemsu was dispatched, in order to bring malachite and copper. List of his soldiers: 734
Inscription in Wadi Maghara
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 713
    The country of Atika with its great copper mines has been variously identified as a region of the Sinai desert (Wadi Arabah is mentioned), or the Negev (the Timna copper mines)
I sent forth my messengers to the country of Atika, to the great copper mines which are in this place. Their galleys carried them; others on the land-journey were upon their asses. It has not been heard before, since kings reign. Their mines were found abounding in copper; it was loaded by ten-thousands into their galleys. They were sent forward to Egypt, and arrived safely. It was carried and made into a heap under the balcony, in many bars of copper, being of the color of gold of three times.
Ramses III
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 408
    When the need for cropper outgrew local supplies foreign sources were opened up, which sometimes failed to deliver. A Late Bronze Age king of Alasiya (possibly on the island of Cyprus) apologised for sending only 500 of copper because his people were being killed by Nergal, god of destruction. If these 500 of copper were 500 talents of copper, each weighing 25 kg, the shipment would have amounted to 12.5 tons (cf. letter from the king of Alasiya).
I have given thee a ship bearing cargoes upon the sea, conveying to thee the great [marvels] of God's Land [3], and the merchants doing merchandising, bearing their wares and their imposts therefrom in gold, silver and copper.
Ramses II addressing his father Seti I
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 274
    During his campaign in Canaan and Syria Thutmose III conquered and plundered a number of cities
Behold, ships were taken ... ... ... laden with everything, with slaves, male and female; copper, lead, [emery] (and) everything good.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 460
    The tribute of the princes of Retenu Thutmose III exacted in his 31st year included 40 blocks of native copper and lead and in his 38th year he received 276 blocks of crude copper.
Tribute of the chief of Isy [1] in [this year]: 108 blocks of pure copper or 2,040 deben [2]; 5(+x) blocks of lead; 1,200 [pigs] of lead; lapis lazuli, 110 deben; ivory, 1 tusk; 2 staves of ... wood.
Thutmose III: Annals of the 10th campaign
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 493
    The oldest Egyptian copper artefacts - beads and small tools - date to the early 4th millennium. It has been proposed that they were fashioned from native copper which can occasionally be found. According to this (unproved) theory working copper predated its extraction from ore.
    Others claim that the metal was extracted from malachite, hydrated copper carbonate occurring in some abundance in Egypt and used as eye paint.
    The smelting requires temperatures of about 800° C which cannot be reached in open fires. Its discovery was either the result of a deliberate search for the material they knew as native copper or the serendipitous by-product of glazing steatite, or of firing faience or pottery in a kiln. It has also been suggested that this discovery was not made by the Egyptians themselves. The metal itself was rarely pure. It often contained small amounts of iron, zinc or arsenic.
    The objects were generally cast, which is quite difficult to do with copper because of the formation of gas bubbles during the pouring of the metal and its shrinking when it cooled down. Then they were hammered cold to give them their final form. Hammering also increased the metal's hardness comparable to that of very soft modern steel. In later times they prevented the brittleness caused by the hammering by repeated annealing or tempering, i.e. heating the metal to 500 to 700° C, and thus softening it slightly.
    In the Old Kingdom the Egyptian metalsmiths were capable of producing many objects: weapons, statuettes, ornaments, tools and vessels, some of them quite sophisticated like ewers with bodies which were hammered and spouts which were cast and affixed to the bodies by riveting or by cold hammering as soldering and similar techniques were still unknown.
    The nature of objects made of copper changed with the advent of the harder bronze. Copper tools and weapons ceased to be produced, while models of such tools were still sometimes fashioned in copper.
    Hard soldering with silver seems to have been done first during the 4th dynasty and was routinely performed during the 18th. Soft soldering with tin and lead was of later date.
    Wood was at times covered with thin copper plating held in place by copper nails, like the door of the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak
Its great door was of cedar of the royal domain, wrought with [copper; the great name upon it] was of electrum.
Coronation inscription of Thutmose III
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 157
and copper objects were occasionally plated with silver and very rarely with gold.


Gold     Egypt was richer in gold than any other country of the region, especially after the conquest of Nubia. There were deposits of alluvial gold of the water and veins of gold-bearing quartzite in the eastern desert [4] often in most inhospitable places like Akita.
Lo, his majesty was sitting upon a great throne of electrum, diademed with the double-feathered crown, recounting the countries from which gold is brought, and devising plans for digging wells on a road lacking in water, after hearing said that there was much gold in the country of Akita, whereas the road thereof was very lacking in water..... Hence no gold was brought from this country for lack of water.
Kubban stela of Ramses III
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 286
    In a Medinet Habu inscription a few local sources of gold are mentioned, including Kush which had been annexed:
Gold of Kush
Gold of the mountain
Gold of the water
Gold of Edfu
Gold of Ombos
Gold of Coptos
                    Inscription of Ramses III in the treasury of the temple at Medinet Habu,
                            James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 30
    The merchandising merchants trading with God's Land also acquired gold, and Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt returned with green gold of Emu. The plunder of war also enriched the treasury
Lo, [they] slew ... ... ... of his possessions, his [equipment], his silver, his gold, his vessels of bronze, the furniture of his wife .........
Merneptah's great Karnak inscription
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 584
    The Egyptians distinguished between gold of different qualities. In their inscriptions they used expressions like fine gold, gold doubly refined and gold of three times, white gold, green gold, native gold, ketem gold and many others. The physical properties of gold could not be improved as refining was unknown until the latter half of the first millennium BCE [7], but debasement by the addition of copper and other metals was practiced early on. The inclusion of silver could result in a dullish, grey or green looking metal, and copper or iron made it look reddish.
    The standard of work of the Egyptian goldsmiths was high from the beginning of the pharaonic age. Only a small part of all the gold bracelets, diadems, pectorals, rings and other jewellery, ornamental weapons and tools, vessels and tomb equipment have survived the plundering by kings and robbers, and they belong to the most beautiful objects ever made. They were shaped by casting and hammering and embellished by engraving and embossing and by setting other materials like precious stones or even glass.
    By pounding, thin plates were made which were glued or riveted with gold rivets onto other, baser materials. These foils were often less than half a millimetre thick. They were applied to obelisks, columns, furniture, coffins and death masks, amulets and jewellery. Gold leaf less than a hundredth millimetre thin (quite hefty compared with modern leaf which has only a hundredth of this thickness) was applied to surfaces smoothed by gesso.
a palace of the god, wrought with gold and [silver]; it illuminated the faces (of people) with its brightness
Inscription of Thutiy
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 375
I made a design for thy processional image, in the gold-house anew, of thy temple, wrought of gold, native silver, real lapis lazuli, malachite, and every costly stone. I made its august shrine like the horizon of heaven, in thy barque in the midst of it, resting upon it.... The shrine was with a roof, two columns, and an upper [cornice] of the [roof]; they were of gold in [raised work], in real costly stone. I wrought upon its great carrying-poles, overlaid with fine gold, engraved with thy name.
Ramses III, Papyrus Harris
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 315
    Even if the Assyrian king Ashur-Uballit reminded Akhenaten in a letter that he knew that the gold is in your land like the dust, few Egyptians possessed any gold. It was mostly reserved for the use of the gods, the kings and, to a lesser extent, the rich and powerful. Receiving it in the form of gold of valour, golden necklaces or ornaments in the form of flies, was an extraordinary honour for commoners serving in the army. Some gold must have circulated among the people at least from the late New Kingdom onwards, enough for robbers to run the risk of stealing gold from tombs and trying to sell it.


electrum     Electrum is a gold-silver alloy which occurred naturally. It had a silver contents somewhat higher than twenty percent and its colour was a pale amber. It was mostly imported from countries south of Egypt: Punt, Emu, the south countries :
Punt, 80,000 measures of myrrh, [6,000] ... of electrum, 2,600 [...] staves, [... ...]
King Sahure, Palermo Stone
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 161
Every [statue] is overlaid on its body with electrum of Emu
Thutmose III, inscription of the speos of Artemidos
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 298
..... necklaces, amulets, and pendants of real electrum, brought to his majesty from the south countries as their yearly impost
Thutmose III
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 654
    Electrum was worked and used similarly to gold: chariots, thrones and offering-tables were wrought with it, ceilings, roofs, columns and pyramidions covered with it, amulets, statues and jewellery fashioned from it.


Silver     Egypt had little silver which was not part of gold deposits. This scarcity caused the value of silver to remain high compared with gold and other commodities until the New Kingdom. By the 18th dynasty silver and copper had been established as a mostly abstract means of exchange, with silver being worth half its weight in gold and 100 times its weight in copper. Under the 20th dynasty this ratio decreased, but grew again until it reached 1 to 330 under the Ptolemies.
    With the introduction of coined money silver became the base of the system, small denominations were struck from copper.
    Silver was imported from western Asia, though it is unclear which were the supplying countries. On the other hand, the gifts of foreign kings, interpreted by the Egyptians as tribute, were meticulously recorded, but these were only small amounts and economically not very significant.
I turn my face to the north, I work a wonder [for thee]. ... ... ... snaring the rebels in their nests by the power of thy might. I bring to the countries that know not Egypt, with their tribute borne, consisting of silver, gold, lapis lazuli, every splendid costly stone of God's Land.
Seti I, Karnak reliefs
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 116

Tribute of the chiefs of Retenu this year: .............. , 31 (+x) [chariots] wrought with silver and gold and painted ........... various silver vessels of the workmanship of the country, ... deben, 6 kidet, gold and silver .........
The annals of Thutmose III: The ninth campaign
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 491

The tribute of Kheta the Great in this year: 8 silver rings, making 401 deben
The annals of Thutmose III: The eighth campaign
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 485
    Naharin was during the early 18th dynasty under Egyptian sway and was paying Thutmose III tribute which included silver vessels of the workmanship of Zahi. In the time of Ramses II Egypt received undisclosed amounts of silver [3]
    Silver, generally treated much like gold and electrum, could also be stained black using sulphur. This niello was occasionally applied as decoration. Beaten into sheets, silver was used to plate copper and other materials, especially mirror surfaces.


Bronze     The introduction of bronze was a huge improvement in tool and weapon manufacture. Unlike iron which was a difficult material to work with, bronze technologies were similar to the techniques improved during the copper age: It could be cast, hammered cold, and annealing improved its toughness.
    Bronze is an alloy of copper and of about 4% tin. It is harder than pure copper, melts at a lower temperature and is easier to cast. But when the amount of tin is 5% or higher the alloy becomes brittle when hammered and has to be annealed frequently.[15]  
    The oldest bronze artefacts date to the Old Kingdom. They may have been the result of the accidental mixing of tin and copper ores. While Egypt produced some bronze and copper-arsenic alloys of its own, it began to import significant amounts of bronze from Syria during the Middle Kingdom which reduced the use of arsenic bronze and eventually replaced it.[14]
    Apart from weapons and tools which continued to be made of bronze well into the first millennium BCE, vessels, statues, offering tables, temple and shrine doors and smaller items like rings were fashioned of bronze right through the Iron Age.
"Most Splendid" the temple of myriads of years; its great doors fashioned of black copper, the inlaid figures of electrum. Khikhet, the great seat of Amon, his horizon in the west; all its doors of real cedar, wrought with bronze.
Thutmose III: Inscriptions of Thutiy
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 375


Tin     There are small tin deposits in Egypt but they were never exploited. Tin for the production of bronze was imported, probably from western Asia.
    Although of great importance in the production of bronze, tin was only very rarely used on its own. A few objects made mostly of tin were found, the oldest the bezel of a ring dating to the New Kingdom. Small amounts of tin oxide were added to glass to give it an opaque white colour. Tin was used as solder in the Ptolemaic Period. [16]
    Tin is mentioned a few times in the New Kingdom Harris Papyrus. In the 25th Dynasty Tanutamen built a Palace in Napata:
As for his majesty, his heart was glad in giving /// to his father, Amon of Napata. His majesty issued a command concerning it, to Nubia, to build for him a hall anew; it was not found built in the time of the ancestors. His majesty caused it to be built of stone, mounted with gold; its panel was of cedar incensed with myrrh of Punt. The double doors thereof were of electrum, the two bolts of [tin].
Stela of Tanutamen
J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 929


Iron     Iron is a very common element and iron ores occur in the mountainous areas of the eastern desert and Sinai [6] though high grade ores are rare. That and the lack of hardwood or coal needed to achieve high temperatures prevented any large scale iron production in Egypt. Much of the iron used for the manufacture of tools and weapons was therefore imported.
    Since pre-historic times iron compounds were used as colouring agents: red and yellow ochre and brownish sienna. Haematite, reddish-black ferric oxide, was made into small decorative items like beads and amulets.
    Native iron of meteoric origin with a high nickel content was the first metallic iron to be used during the pre-dynastic. According to the written records the first smelted iron reached Egypt from Tinay, an unknown country probably in western Asia
[The tribute of the chief] of Tinay: a silver vessel of the work of the Keftyew, together with vessels of iron, 4 hands of silver, making 56 deben, 1 kidet .........
The annals of Thutmose III
J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 537
    This being the only mention of iron in 18th dynasty documents one may assume that iron was still fairly rare in western Asia at the time. The papyrus Harris, a very extensive and detailed inventory of items donated to temples by Ramses III mentions iron just once, in a listing of Nile god statues made of various metals: Iron, a statue of the Nile god, nusa.
    During the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period no or little iron was produced locally, and finds are few. In the seventh century BCE Ionians began to settle in the Delta and seem to have brought with them the know-how necessary for working iron. Naukratis and Defenneh became the great Egyptian centres of iron tools manufacture. Once they got going it took only about a century for the production of iron implements to equal the manufacture of bronze tools and weapons.
    Iron can be smelted at temperatures exceeding 1100°C, somewhat above the melting point of gold (1065°C). The result of this smelting process is useless as a material unless hammered hot. In antiquity, casting was not achieved anywhere but in China. The required temperature of 1530°C was not reached in western Eurasia until the Middle Ages. All other metals used by the Egyptians either had a low melting point and/or could be worked cold. The tools for hammering were hand-held stones [10]. When a workpiece had to be heated its temperature was not high enough to affect the bronze tools used to handle it. Iron required shatterproof hammers with handles [9] and iron tongs [8] to hold the workpiece in place.
    An additional problem was the fact that pure iron is barely harder than bronze. Carburizing, i.e. the addition of a small amount of carbon (between about ½ and 2%) and quenching turned the iron into steel suitable for weapons and tool manufacture. Repeatedly heating the iron in a charcoal fire and hammering it was probably the method used for carburizing. This seems to have occurred as early as the Late New Kingdom, probably as a fortunate by-product of shaping. Quenching was apparently introduced during the Third Intermediate Period.
    Iron, while the most utilitarian of metals, was still employed to fashion ornaments, but it was most important for making knives, the only metal tools most of humanity ever used and owned until the industrial revolution.


Lead     Lead was of minor importance. Too soft for making tools or weapons apart from slingshot it was still known since pre-dynastic times. Galena, lead sulfide, the ore it could easily be extracted from in open fires - lead melts at 327°C - was used widely in cosmetics.
    It was mined in the eastern desert near the Red Sea coast and at Aswan. It was also frequently plundered or given as part of tribute. Thutmose III returned from his fifth campaign with
..... tribute brought to his majesty on this expedition: 51 slaves, male and female; 30 horses ....... copper, lead, lapis lazuli green feldspar .......
J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two; § 462
and from his 9th campaign he returned with lead, 11 blocks from Retenu, and from Isy 5 (+x) blocks of lead and 1200 pigs of lead
    Heavy and resistant to water, the metal was useful for the making of weights and sinkers. Easily worked, it was employed in the manufacture of (relatively) cheap statuettes and jewellery.


Picture sources:
[  ] Petrie Museum website [11]
[1] Isy is at times thought to have been Cyprus, though it was possibly a city on the mainland
[2] 2,040 deben: about 180 kg, according to this a block would have weighed 1.7 kg
[3] God's Land: Its location is even less certain than that of Punt, and it may not have been a geographical place-name at all. Under Hatshepsut it was somewhere in the south:
They took myrrh as they wished, they loaded the vessels to their hearts' content, with fresh myrrh trees, every good gift of this country, Puntites whom the people know not, Southerns of God's Land.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 288
Thutmose III located it in Retenu, today's Syria, and in the time of Ramses II it seemed to refer to Naharin, north-eastern Mesopotamia
Lo, his majesty was in Naharin according to his yearly custom, while the chiefs of every country came bowing down in peace, because of the fame of his majesty. From the marshes was their tribute; silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite and every sweet wood of God's Land were upon their backs, each one leading his neighbour.
Ramses II, Bentresh Stela
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 434
In the second century B.C. Agatharchides describes a method of refining gold practised in Egypt by heating it with lead, salt, tin and barley bran.
A.Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, p.229
[12] For instance in P.Hal.Kurth Inv [13]: As concerns gold: this is the body of Re; or in The Legend of the Destruction of Mankind.
[14] Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The British Museum Press 2003, p.71
[15] A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Histories & Mysteries of Man LTD. London 1989, p.217
[16] A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Histories & Mysteries of Man LTD. London 1989, pp.253ff.

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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-[4] Gold mines in ancient Egypt
-[5] Copper mines in ancient Egypt
-[6] Iron mines in ancient Egypt
-[8] Iron tongs
-[9] Iron hammer head
-[10] Hammerstone
-[11] Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
-[13] "Alle Natur ist göttlich", Uni Magazin, Martin-Luthrt-Universität Halle-Wittenberg 15.5.2008


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© October 2003
September 2012